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Al Pacino in the HBO film Paterno.HBO/HBO

One of the most powerful, unforgettable scenes broadcast in recent years was at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team physician convicted of sexually assaulting young athletes in his care. Numerous former gymnasts and Michigan State University athletes gave victim-impact statements accusing university staff of dismissing or ignoring their sexual-abuse complaints against Nassar.

At issue: Who knew what was happening and what did they do about it?

The same issue is at the core of the wonderfully nuanced Paterno (airing Saturday, HBO, 8 p.m. ET; repeating Sunday, 7:15 p.m. ET). It’s about Joe Paterno (played by Al Pacino), one of the most successful coaches in U.S. college football history, and how he handled the unfolding scandal of sexual-abuse claims against a guy in his inner circle, defensive assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, at Penn State.

The one-word title is apt. The Sandusky figure is barely in it. This is about Joe Paterno, then 84 years old, much admired – if not worshipped – in college football, and how he reacted.

There is a lot packed into this movie. It is in part about the young reporter Sara Ganim (played by Riley Keough) who broke the Sandusky story for the tiny Harrisburg Patriot-News. Her story was ignored for months, but then Ganim witnessed the impact of the indictments against Sandusky and the furious, bewildered response of the university and the community. The movie is about the ugliness of the public response when a hero is revealed as deeply flawed. It’s about how sport is used as an excuse to rationalize what is inexcusable.

Mostly, it is about the selfishness of old men. Pacino is superb as a doddering but canny Paterno, a man who likes to portray himself as ancient and only interested in coaching football. The opening scene, sublimely staged, gives us the platform on which the drama plays out.

It’s a vital game for Penn State, apparently, but really, it’s about Paterno winning a record 409th game. He sits in the press box at the stadium because his hip hurts. He looks down on the field, an emperor gazing on his gladiators doing battle. A word or even a murmur from old Joe and everybody instantly does what he wants.

What he wants is to prep for the next game. He says he’s so focused on playing Nebraska next week that he doesn’t have time to read the indictments against Sandusky. His family reads the documents, and a slow, terrible trepidation dawns. Joe Paterno was told about Sandusky’s behaviour some years earlier and duly made a cursory call to someone else at the university. That’s it. That’s all he did.

The film (directed by Barry Levinson, written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards) makes this the core issue. It sticks to the facts of the case as known. Pacino’s Paterno is a powerful, elderly man concerned with himself. He listens to those who praise him. When he wants to talk, everybody else shuts up. Even when he moves from one chair to another in his home, there is silence, because he’s moving.

When his family directs him to read the indictments, he says, “They indict me?” The answer is “No.” And Paterno shrugs, says, “So …?” and goes back to watching football on TV. Eventually, the panicked family resorts to Google to find a crisis-management expert. They are clueless, bickering and afraid.

The situation in the Paterno household is contrasted with the home of one of Sandusky’s victims. The boy is resigned to the disapproval that will engulf him. His mom tells the young reporter, “When I said call the police, ’cos that guy touched my kid, I was told to go home and sleep on it. I was told, ‘You’re emotional right now.’” Meanwhile, at Paterno’s house, the old man says, “I get that everybody’s upset, but there’s a legal process to unfold.”

The climax is exactly what happened in reality. Pushed into doing it, Paterno reluctantly says he’s going to resign at the end of the season. Then the university fires him.

Next, on a Wednesday night in November of 2011, thousands of Penn State students stormed the area around the campus and rioted. They destroyed property and overturned a TV news van. They were furious that Paterno was fired. They were certain that the coach had done his duty when he made that cursory call about Sandusky years before. The firing was unfair to Joe. It didn’t matter to them that Sandusky had continued molesting and raping young boys.

At issue: Who knew what was happening and what did they do about it?

Maybe, seven years later, in the context the USA Gymnastics scandal and the #MeToo movement, matters of institutional responsibility and personal culpability would be seen differently. Or, as this powerful, must-see movie suggests, maybe not.